A Job Badly Done

Reviewed by Benjamin Kerstein

A Serious Man
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
105 minutes, 2009.

Joel and Ethan Coen are a rare thing in this day and age: successful Hollywood filmmakers whose ambitions and accomplishments are not entirely mercenary. Over a career spanning three decades, the fraternal duo has gone from the low-budget world of independent film to a global brand name that sells tickets, wins Academy Awards, and enjoys the acclaim of film critics and dedicated fans alike. Most remarkably, the Coens have achieved this without sacrificing their artistic integrity or their famously offbeat sensibility. Somehow, they have managed to become a mainstream success without becoming mainstream themselves.
This is no small feat in the cutthroat world of Hollywood filmmaking, which usually tries to minimize the enormous financial risk involved in making movies by playing to the absolute lowest common denominator. Even highly talented and visionary filmmakers such as Michael Cimino, Terry Gilliam, and Tim Burton have frequently found themselves crushed by the demands of the system. The Coens, however, have managed to escape this trap by using a trick employed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Martin Scorsese: Put simply, they make one film for the audience, and then, with the money and prestige garnered from their previous success, make one for themselves. The ones for the audience—movies like Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996), The Ladykillers (2004), and No Country for Old Men (2007)—retain the Coens’ idiosyncratic sensibility but are nonetheless recognizable variations on familiar genres and themes, ones with which audiences are comfortable. By contrast, the ones the Coens make for themselves—such as Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000),and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)—defy all attempts at classification, often presenting a baffling collage of the Coens’ bizarre obsessions and fascinations. Sometimes they are organized around a vague theme, and sometimes they simply hang there for the viewer to make of them what he will. Whether they are as good as The Big Lebowski or as bad as The Man Who Wasn’t There, one suspects that they are, to a large extent, something of an inside joke between the brothers themselves. Whether or not we get it doesn’t seem high on their list of concerns.
The Coen brothers’ latest film, A Serious Man, is unquestionably one for themselves. This is not particularly surprising, since, in the wake of the enormous artistic and financial success of their adaptation of No Country for Old Men, the brothers have reached a point in their careers in which they have the ability to make any film they want, exactly the way they want it. They have done precisely this in A Serious Man, and the result is a funny, strange, enigmatic, sometimes disturbing, and incredibly vicious satire of Jewish American life. It is also, perhaps as an inevitable result of the brothers’ tendency toward artistic narcissism, a depressingly cruel and empty film.
A Serious Man is malicious right from the start. It opens with a lengthy prologue set in an Eastern European shtetl a hundred years before the main action. While the dialogue is entirely in Yiddish and references (inaccurately) the kabbalistic concept of the dybbuk, the sequence is actually a fairly conventional ghost story, and the Coens themselves have freely admitted that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie. It seems to exist purely for the sake of depicting an old man being stabbed through the heart and then playing the results for laughs. For better or worse, this sets the tone for more or less everything that follows.
Without explanation, the film promptly shifts to a suburban Minnesota Jewish community in the late 1960s, much like the one in which the Coens themselves grew up. Indeed, it is probably safe to assume that much of A Serious Man is a patchwork of daydreams, resentments, and nightmares culled from their childhood memories. Said childhood could not have been particularly pleasant, as the story—to the extent that there is one—is pitiless to the point of metaphysical sadism. It recounts the tale of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mild-mannered professor of physics whose relatively contented existence suddenly and inexplicably begins to implode. One day, in the first of many shocks to come, Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces that she is leaving him to marry Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a smooth-talking, wealthy, and appallingly sleazy family friend. To add insult to injury, she demands that he consent to a get (religious divorce), essentially insisting that Larry give up their marriage without a fight.
Larry’s troubles are not confined to the home, however. Slowly but surely, it begins to seem as if the entire world is conspiring against him, wreaking havoc on his already frayed nerves. He is up for tenure at the university, but someone is writing poison pen letters about him to the academic committee. One of his students is unhappy with his failing grade and offers him a bribe to change it; when an indignant Larry refuses, the boy’s father threatens to sue him. Meanwhile, his ill-tempered (and vaguely antisemitic) next-door neighbor is beginning to encroach on his property—that is, when he isn’t returning from hunting trips with large, dead animals strapped to the roof of his car. His neighbor on the other side is no less of a trial for Larry, this time in the seductive form of a bored housewife who has taken to sunbathing nude in the backyard and plying her potential conquests with marijuana.
The situation only intensifies when Sy and Judith suddenly decide that things would be better for all involved if Larry moved out of his home. This forces the beleaguered professor to shack up in a local motel with his brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), a demented genius who spends most of his time scrawling bizarre mathematical equations in a small notebook. Meanwhile, Larry’s children are happily on their own way off the deep end, his son spending most of his time in a pot-induced haze and his daughter going out of her way to be as absent as possible from everybody’s lives.
Desperate to find an answer to his troubles, Larry turns to his faith. He seeks out the advice of three rabbis, to no avail. The first, a young man new to the profession, has nothing to offer but stale platitudes and an irritatingly unctuous smile. He is so inept, in fact, that it takes an entire conversation for him to realize that Judith is leaving Larry, and not the other way around. The second, a well-meaning fool who compensates for his stupidity by adopting the false joviality of a motivational speaker, responds to Larry’s desperate plea for help by telling him a long and convoluted story about a Jewish dentist who finds the Hebrew word for “save me” etched into a “goy’s” teeth. This ridiculous tale ends up going nowhere, and when Larry asks for the moral of the story, the rabbi simply mouths empty pieties about God working in mysterious ways. As for the third, an elderly sage revered by the community, his formidable secretary refuses to allow Larry to see him: The great master, who is glimpsed doing nothing but staring blankly into space, is “too busy.”
Feeling abandoned by his family, his community, and God, and utterly unable to make sense of his suffering, Larry struggles to find the answer the rabbis cannot or will not give him. Later, at his son’s bar mitzva, partially reconciled with his wife and embraced by the community once again, he does seem to find a moment of peace and repose—although, unbeknownst to him, the boy is stoned out of his mind the entire time. Finally, the film ends with a twist that, while its implications are not fully revealed, appears to be even more cruel and unjust than anything that has come before. With its last, enigmatic image, we are left with the suggestion of some terrible, even apocalyptic judgment.
It may or may not have been the Coen brothers’ intention to make a “Jewish movie” with A Serious Man, but there is no doubt that, in the sense that the film is laden with references to Jewish language, culture, religion, and even mysticism, it is the most ostentatiously Jewish major motion picture to come out of Hollywood in years. In fact, the film’s title was translated into Hebrew as Yehudi Tov (“A Good Jew”) for its Israeli release. Yet as some commentators have already noted, this may not be an entirely good thing. The film makes no attempt whatsoever to present a realistic or nuanced picture of Jewish American life, giving us instead a series of caricatures, some of them so ugly that no non-Jewish filmmaker could have gotten away with them. Almost all the characters are varying degrees of weak, manipulative, uncaring, lecherous, stupid, capricious, selfish, narcissistic, or amoral, and sometimes downright malicious and evil. Even Larry, whose moral integrity and sense of decency are emphasized throughout, is ultimately little more than a craven doormat. Whether intentional or not, the film adds up to a decidedly brutal evisceration of the shallowness and quiet violence of assimilated Jewish American life.
At first glance this is somewhat off-putting, but those of us who grew up in similar surroundings will admit that the portrait is not without a measure of perceptiveness. The depiction of the three rabbis, for example, is a devastating yet all-too-familiar one: Faced with a desperate man looking for answers, the first two are too cowardly to admit that they have no idea how to help him, and the third is too cloistered, vain, and probably senile to acknowledge his existence. Many of us, if caught in an honest moment, would have to admit that the Coens did not venture too far from reality here—a reality we ourselves have come across once or twice in our lives.
This holds true for the depiction of Larry’s relatives, friends, and neighbors. Grasping, selfish, spoiled, and vampiric, they seem to feel entitled to exploit Larry’s weak-willed good nature to their advantage. When their demands become blatantly unreasonable, they are perfectly willing to use emotional blackmail to get what they want, and they seem to enjoy watching Larry squirm with guilt for even thinking of refusing them. Most of us have known a Larry or two in our lives: middle-age Jewish men who have become the all-purpose slave of everyone to whom they happen to be related. Taught almost from birth to regard this state of affairs as their destiny in life, the Larry Gopniks of the world feel an almost moral obligation to debase themselves for the benefit of others. So complete is their conditioning, in fact, that it never occurs to them that other options exist, such as simply saying no. Indeed, the Coens’ portrayal of this tragic but very familiar type is so accurate that it is frankly difficult to watch. Throughout the film, one longs for Larry to lash out at least once at the mob of parasites surrounding him, but we know he won’t, and, of course, he never does.

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